PORTLAND, Maine — After swearing in a new councilor and mayor on Monday, Portland’s nine-member City Council is decidedly less male and less white.
It’s a notable distinction considering the disparity in diversity between elected leaders and the overwhelming amount of white voters who elected them. Maine’s largest city is nearly 84 percent white, but will for the first time in history be represented by a “minority majority” — five of the nine leaders identify as non-white and four are women.
“We’ve made great strides,” said District 2 Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who became only the fourth person of color to serve on the City Council when he was elected in 2015.
Other people of color on the council include black representatives Jill Duson and Pious Ali, an immigrant from Ghana who was re-elected to a second term last month; Justin Costa, a Hispanic representative from District 1 whose father hails from Spain and Puerto Rico; and Tae Chong, who in November became the first Asian ever elected to City Council.
While it’s a historic political milestone for the city’s Asian-American community, Chong largely dismissed the designation.
“I would have thought about it 20 years ago, but look how diverse the city is now,“ Chong said.
Actually, Portland is still pretty racially homogenous, but its demographics are shifting. Today, 16.1 percent of the population identifies as something other than white, according to census data. That’s twice the percentage of the population that identified as non-white in 2000.
And many in the city now identify as multicultural because of their immigrant ties. For example, at-large Councilor Nicholas Mavodones’ grandparents were born in Greece.
The makeup of Portland’s council makes it one of the most diverse in the U.S.
Comparing Portland’s leadership to some of the country’s most diversely populated and large cities, only 15 of them — Honolulu; San Jose, California; Vallejo, California; Oakland, California; Long Beach, California; Seattle; Kent, Washington; Las Vegas; San Antonio; Austin, Texas; Detroit; Alexandria, Virginia; Miami; Jersey City, New Jersey; and New Haven, Connecticut — appear to have city councils with as small or smaller percentage of white men as Portland.
Boston now holds a similar “majority-minority” distinction after last month’s elections. Seven of its 13 councilors are persons of color.
Women also are more visibly represented in Portland politics this year. In addition to at-large Councilor Duson, the council’s female caucus now comprises District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray, District 5 Councilor Kimberly Cook and newly elected Mayor Kate Snyder, who beat incumbent Ethan Strimling and two other male opponents in a four-way race for the city’s top seat last month. While other women have been appointed to the position, Snyder is the first woman to be elected mayor of Portland.
In her inauguration speech Monday, Snyder pointed out that she and other women on the council were wearing white scarves in honor of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
In 2018, Maine made history with the election of Janet Mills as the state’s first female governor. That election cycle also brought more female lawmakers to power in the state than ever before.